Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Iowa Community Knows Risks of Fertilizer But Welcomes Plant Expansion

Wesley Gatlin

West, Texas resident Wesley Gatlin took this photo of the plant on fire just before the explosion

Sioux City, Iowa now has a tragic link to West, Texas. Both communities have had fertilizer plants that have exploded, killing and injuring people.

“We feel for that community right now,” said David Tripp, one of the five supervisors for Woodbury County where Sioux City is located.

In Iowa, they too know the dangers of making fertilizer.

A Deadly Explosion

Early one December morning in 1994, an explosion ripped through a plant that made ammonia nitrate fertilizer, killing four plant workers and seriously injuring 18 others.

Unlike the West Fertilizer Co. plant in Texas that had neighborhoods just a couple hundred feet away, the plant in Iowa was located along the Missouri River with a couple miles of agricultural fields separating it from the nearest farm house. Sioux City is the nearest population center and is about four miles north of the site.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did the accident investigation. The agency traced the cause to a series of what it said were mistakes in the chemical process used to produce the ammonia nitrate. Investigators said the mistakes were made because plant personnel were not aware of “many of the hazards” of the ammonia nitrate, alleging the plant had failed to do a “hazards analysis.”

A Major Expansion

Now, almost two decades later, the plant has a new owner, CF Industries, which is planning a $1.7 billion dollar expansion. Similar to what is happening at petrochemical plants along the Texas Gulf Coast, the company is taking advantage of low natural gas prices. Natural gas is used in the chemical process and accounts for 70 percent of the cost to make fertilizer according to coverage of the expansion in Iowa Farmer Today.

Iowa’s Lt. Governor, Kim Reynolds, hailed the expansion as the “single largest capital investment in Iowa’s history.”

David Tripp, the county supervisor, said their emergency management office is working with the company to develop safety plans for the expanded plant.

“Everybody is working hard and being diligent about safety-first when it comes to the fertilizer plant,” Tripp told StateImpact.

But in light of what happened in West, Texas Tripp added, “I have not heard anybody even question the risk factor of an explosion like that, but it may come up now.”


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